The eBook and eReader Conundrum

Josie Leavitt - April 30, 2012

Every week, a member of the New England Independent Booksellers Association board has written the membership with a Question of the Week. This past week, board president Annie Philbrick wondered: With the impending loss of Google eBooks in January 2013, the ABA is looking into all options for the sale of eBooks in indies. If the ABA were to partner with a company that would allow independent bookstores to sell an eReader device and eBooks, would you sell this device in your store?  Or would you just sell the eBooks on your website? Or neither?
This is a very good question. Made more complicated because, while I’m an ABA member store, I have my website through someone else, so gains made for IndieCommerce websites might not apply to me.
We have been selling eBooks for months now and sold very few. We have sold some, but is it enough to spend dues money pursuing? Or, has the eBook ship essentially missed the indies in any substantive way? I hear more and more customers talking about their Kindles, iPads and eReaders, but are these customers just too conditioned to download their content from websites that do it better than I do? Should I stick what I do best, which is sell books, with pages, covers, and that delicious book smell, or do indies go head to head and bring their own eReader to the market?
I just don’t know.
As much as I hate to say it, I do think we’re a little late to the ball. To bring a new kind of eReader to the market that’s indie specific, but would be competing with some very well done readers at affordable prices, seems untenable with the volume necessary to make it cost-efficient. I keep coming back to wondering why I can’t get eBooks directly from the publishers themselves. Maybe I missed the memo about it, but I have no idea why we can’t partner with publishers, Ingram, or Baker Taylor to fulfill our eBook needs. Even still, Amazon and iTunes just make it so easy, and that’s what’s been missing with indies and eBooks for the most part. If we do it, it’s got be done seemlessly and it’s got to be one or two steps of an easy, intuitive process.
I don’t know what the market will look like in six months or a year. I’d like to think that there will be enough people who refuse to read digitally that bookstores will be fine, but I could be guessing wrong.
So, I’m back to not knowing. Readers, how do you see the relationship with independent bookstores and eBooks? Any predictions for how the eBook/bookstore landscape might change in the next six months to a year?

16 thoughts on “The eBook and eReader Conundrum

  1. Kate

    As a small publisher, I see the way forward for a lot of bookstores being bundling – and I’m trying to work out how it might be logistically possible to partner with indie booksellers to do bundles. If you get the eBook free with an in-store, indie purchase of a paperback, it adds some value and shores up the print market. And it just makes sense, anyway. Now to get the Big Six onboard with that…
    Granted, it still doesn’t solve the problem of eBook-only sales done in conjunction with indie booksellers, but that’s a massive technological problem, as you said. It has to be seamless and relatively frictionless, and working that out with hundreds of indie booksellers is going to be tricky.

    1. Seer

      I’m just a consumer, but I’m a heavy book reader – at least 100 a year. And I only read ebooks these days. 6 months ago, I might have been enticed by bundling, but aside from serious “keepers”, I’d rather not have the physical book to deal with. Now that the collusion cat is out of the bag, I just want to buy the ebook at a fair price, with consideration to the fact that it does not have a material or distribution cost. Therefore I expect to pay less than the lowest price for the new print book. I also need some assurance of continued access on the device or app of my choice into the future.
      I discovered indies as a result of my distaste for fixed agency priced books and discovered some great authors. But I wouldn’t want to remember all their names, etc. Amazon is fine as an indie option – but I don’t feel comfortable about being able to access a purchase book into the future and I can’t predict what device or app I’ll be using even 5 years from now.
      I’d be open to an indie borrowing site – paid subscription to read x amount of books a month, with the option to purchase keepers. That would be worth downloading an app for….

  2. Doug

    Without wireless delivery, it’s a tough sell. Indie bookstores need competitive pricing on e-books to make it work, and Google hasn’t provided that. One (non-agency) title I looked at was $9 on Google and $25 at the Google-supplied indie. I can do without the wireless delivery, and might pay $1 extra to support my indie bookstore, but I’m not going to pay $16 more.
    I think that in the end, though, the question is, “what special value do you provide to e-book buyers that their connected superstore doesn’t?”

  3. Amanda D

    Not a prediction, just an observation: ebook retailing has such a different skill set than book retailing. It seems like the key to successful ebook retailing would be a beautifully curated and easy-to-use website. The style is similar to what you do in the analog world, but the substance is completely different.

  4. Kat Brokaw

    I’m answering this strictly as a consumer: I love my Kindle, but I’m also aware that the giant (Amazon) I support with my addiction may come to rule me in ways that will turn out unfortunate. (I read a lot of cyberpunk, and Big Brother=Big Corporations)… but (here’s the catch) I’m lazy…
    I would love a device that gave my laziness options… that would let me support many indies, whether I wanted to hit their store or their site… cuz sometimes I’m on my lunch hour and I impulse buy a book, and sometimes I’m on a coffee break, and I impulse buy a book… and sometimes I even plan to buy a book, and then go buy it…
    I don’t mind paying a little more to support the indie… not too much more, but a couple of bucks here and there I can work with… I just don’t want to have to have a different device for each indie… and I want the store(s) to support my incredible laziness and impulsivity…
    there’s big profit to be made off my laziness and impulsivity…

  5. carmen webster buxton

    I have two suggestions. One is that an app that runs on iPad or Android would be a better investment of time and money that trying to build your own hardware. The other is bundling. If you’re considering approaching publishers and/or distributors on your own, consider asking for a deal where the customer who buys the print book can also download the ebook.
    Just a thought.

  6. pauline

    Until all e-readers work on all e-books, I’m steering clear of it professionally. I own a Nook which is nice when I am traveling but only used then, give me paper otherwise.

  7. Terry Whittaker

    Recent studies as presented at ABA’s Winter Institute show that about 50% of those who are heavy e-book readers would consider buying a reader at an independent bookstore if it were under $100 (assumed that it would be technically equivalent to what is out there). As an independent bookseller, I would only want to sell a reader that was branded as an Indie Reader and had the logo, not just a Kobo or Nook.

  8. Laura Van Wormer

    What about the central office of IBA opening retail account so indies can, through them, sell Kindles, Nooks, Kobos, iPads, et al in their store? Why should BestBuy, Walmart etc. make all the the money on them?

  9. cbt

    I think that one of the major problems is that many consumers still just don’t know that they can buy their e-books from indie bookstores. If this is something that ABA wants to pursue, there needs to be a MAJOR push by both ABA AND individual indies to get the word out. Otherwise, it’s not going to be worth the investment. But I think you need to think about it this way–if a customer is in your store, they want to buy their books from you. They’ve made the effort to go down to your store when they could be in the comfort of their own home, ordering the book on Amazon. I think that translates to e-books as well–if such a customer is aware that they can buy e-books from you and there is an easy way to do so, then why wouldn’t that customer want to buy e-books from you? But if you don’t make that option available, then you’re not going to sell that e-book. Sure, maybe you’re not selling many e-books yet. But cutting yourself off from the market entirely just means that you’re never going to sell any.

  10. Eric

    Adding a new device to the crowded market now would seem like too little too late. As a consumer what I would love is to be able to get digital content that isn’t tied to a particular device. I want to login to a website with my account and get to my paid for content from anywhere. Then I can put it on whatever device I want to read on.
    I would love it if I could go to a store, browse, find a book I want and then walk over to a kiosk, scan the bar code, put in my account info, and buy the digital book. When I get home it is waiting for me in my account. I would also expect to be able to buy the books on line without going to the store.
    I also think that bundles of real book and digital book would be great. Sometimes I want to hold the real thing, other times I want to just pack my iPad and have access to a lot of content. Now if only my bookmark could sync in the real world! 😀

    1. Seer

      I agree on buying ebooks that will be accessable on the platform or device of my choice into the future – especially since I’m being asked to pay nearly the same as a physical book.
      I buy ePub format without DRM whenever possible. When it’s not possible, and I have to buy a proprietary format, I’ve considered getting the pirated version in addition, just so that I have some assurance on continued access.
      I also primaritly use my iPad, but I’ve bought books from the Kindle app, Smashwords, Baen,etc. If it’s an EPub, Itunes will read it, back it up to the cloud and my iTunes folder on my computer, giving me some control over my eBooks. I just prefer not to buy ebooks from Apple on general principal since they removed my Kindle app buy button and caused me to spend about 40% for big publisher titles.
      I’ve also taken out my iPad and downloaded a book or sample while I’m in a store looking at the books on display. If there was a QR code I could just read from my iPhone, for a DRM free ebook and very fast checkout, I would be fine with that. But I still expect to pay less than the physical book sitting there. So, I don’t think indies need their own device – they just need a good way of buying the ebook, in ePub and Mobi format for those who still use dedicated devices.

  11. Kathy

    I just had a conversation with a friend who complained about her library’s website for downloading ebooks. She said that sometimes it’s just easier to go off and buy the thing than to find it through the library’s vendor. The message I got was that the design of the website is critical – if libraries – or indie bookstores – have a well-designed website that makes finding and getting ebooks easy – it will make a huge difference and translate into more sales.

  12. Becky Hatley

    You know, Baker & Taylor does offer an option. We partner with them through our website to provide eBooks to our customers. Through them we offer books, eBooks, text books, music and movies on our website. So far it has worked well for us.

  13. Janni Lee Simner

    If somehow a well-designed indie-bookstore ereader could be promoted as easy to take everywhere: will load library books, your books, other bookstores books–if it’s promoted as being more flexible, a sort of take-me-anywhere ereader (even though it wouldn’t literally be everywhere, given Amazon)–I could see that working.
    And its presence in stores, even if it sold in low numbers at first, would advertise the fact that indies were sellers of ebooks themselves, too.

  14. Michael Giltz

    If you don’t try and sell ebooks, you’re immediately losing 20% of your business and probably 50% in a blink of an eye. Can you afford to give up 50% of your sales?


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